Staying productive and organized is a perpetual challenge. It doesn’t help that formal education rarely teaches us how to plan and organize our work. Most of us have to figure it out for ourselves.
Bearing this in mind, it’s instructive to learn about productivity systems other people have developed. One classic system that remains relevant today is Getting Things Done® (GTD®), described in David Allen’s book of the same name.
While there are lots of productivity systems out there, GTD® is one of the most flexible and enduring. So much of what you read about productivity online is derivative of Allen’s core ideas. Recognizing that, we decided to create this article.
Below, we examine just a few of the many productivity lessons contained in Getting Things Done. Whether you’re looking to implement GTD® in your work or just want some productivity tips, there’s something for you in this article.
“A paradox has emerged in this new millennium: people have enhanced quality of life, but at the same time they are adding to their stress levels by taking on more than they have resources to handle”
– David Allen, Getting Things Done (5)
Before I get into specific lessons from the book, I want to give a brief overview of the philosophy behind GTD®.
As David Allen puts it, GTD® is a “lifestyle practice” that helps you be “fully present” and “appropriately engaged” in whatever you’re doing (3).
In the past, our work was something we could see. Cows needed to be milked, fields needed to be plowed, or widgets needed to be assembled. With these kinds of work, it’s easy to know when you’re done. If you want to do such work faster, you just need to work harder or more efficiently.
Not so with the “knowledge work” that most of us do as both students and professionals. Modern work is far more nebulous. There’s always “more” you could do, and perfection is an endlessly moving target.
How do you know if you’re doing enough? How do you decide what to work on at this moment? These are the questions a system such as GTD® helps you answer. Keep reading to learn more.
Unlike a lot of business and productivity books, Getting Things Done is information-dense. There’s very little filler, with Allen conveying more in single sentences than some books do in entire chapters.
Considering this, it’s impossible to summarize every useful idea from the book. Instead, we’ve chosen to focus on concepts that are either unconventional or fundamental to the GTD® methodology.
Close the “Open Loops”
As you’ve been reading this article, has anything popped into your mind and pulled your attention away? Almost certainly, and probably more than once. One cause for this shifting attention is what Allen calls “open loops” (14).
An open loop is any task or commitment that pulls your attention away from what you’re currently trying to accomplish. For instance, maybe you just remembered you need to call your parents. Or that you have a group presentation next week.
However big or small the task is, your brain doesn’t care. It will keep bugging you about these open loops until you find a way to close them.
The most obvious way to close the loop is to complete the task. Frequently, however, the context in which you remember a task doesn’t match the context in which you can complete it.
In this case, you need to write the task down in a system that will remind you to do it in the appropriate future context. (More details on this below).
Lack of Time (Probably) Isn’t Your Issue
It’s easy to blame your stress and busyness on a lack of time. But we all have the same 24 hours in a day, and there will always be someone with more to do than you.
Instead, Allen argues, most people’s issue is a lack of clarity about the outcome they desire and the actions they need to take to reach it (15). We’ll talk about actions more in the next section. For now, let’s focus on clarifying your desired outcome.
It may sound obvious, but it’s difficult to complete a task if you don’t know what “complete” looks like. Therefore, it’s critical that you write a concrete description of your desired outcome before you move further on a project or task.
For example, consider a research paper you have to write for your poli-sci class. A project description such as “research paper” is far too vague to be helpful. Indeed, such a description may be counterproductive, stressing you out even further because it seems so insurmountable.
In contrast, here’s what your project description could look like once you’ve clarified your desired outcome: “Write a 10-page research paper about the influence of John Locke’s philosophy on the United States Declaration of Independence.”
This far more concrete description will help you decide the specific actions you need to take to complete your research project.
Decide on the “Next Action”
After you have a clear description of your desired outcome for a project, you need to make a plan of action. Specifically, you need to identify the first action you must take to progress. Allen calls this the “next action”.
Defining your next action is key because “you can’t do a project at all! You can only do an action related to it” (21). Sticking with our example from the previous section, you can’t “do” a research paper. But you can do a concrete step such as making an outline, collecting five sources, or writing a thesis statement.
However, it’s not enough to break a project down into smaller actions. You must also decide “the next physical, visible activity that needs to be engaged in, in order to move the current reality of this thing toward completion” (38).
Otherwise, you can get stalled deciding which project task you should do first (or get distracted switching between project tasks).
So for your research paper, let’s say you decide that the first step is to write a thesis statement. This is your next action.
Even though there are many other actions that you’ll need to bring the project to completion, those aren’t important right now. For the moment, you just have to focus on writing the thesis statement. From there, you can move on to the next action, and the next, until the project is complete.
Get Things Out of Your Head
“The big difference between what I do and what others do is that I capture and organize 100 percent of my stuff in and with objective tools at hand, not in my mind” (23).
Clarifying your desired outcome and defining your next action will help you work more effectively. But to truly experience the relaxed, confident focus that Allen promotes, you’ll need to go further.
Specifically, you need to get all your projects, next actions, and other commitments out of your head and into an external system. Otherwise, everything you have to do will crowd up space in your mind and distract you from living in the moment (17).
You’ve probably experienced the value of such a system if you’ve ever made a list. During exams, for instance, you might write a list of all the studying you need to do before the semester is over. Simply making this list can ease your mind, removing the nagging distraction of all the things you have on your plate.
Now, imagine that instead of making such a list only when you feel overwhelmed, you applied that approach to everything going on in your life. Allen calls this “externalization,” and it’s key to feeling more relaxed and in control of your life (24).
Of course, you can’t just use any system. You need an external system that you can review regularly and trust.
A calendar and a list of projects/next actions are technically all you need. GTD® is flexible enough that it will work with any tools.
But if you want a system tailor-made for GTD®, we recommend our Ultimate Brain template. We designed it to work out of the box with Allen’s GTD® approach. Learn more below:
Practice the “Two-Minute Rule”
One idea from GTD® that you can apply immediately is the “two-minute rule”. The rule is as follows:
“If an action will take less than two minutes, it should be done at the moment it is defined” (38).
The beauty of this rule is that it keeps your organizational system free of clutter. It also helps you maintain momentum in your work, giving you a boost of motivation to take on larger tasks.
Here’s a recent (albeit mundane) example of how I apply the two-minute rule:
The other night, I was sitting on the couch watching some YouTube videos. I then remembered that I needed to grab some quarters for the parking meter the following day.
I could have written this task down and checked it off the following morning. But instead, I chose to take action immediately.
I went over to my bookshelf, grabbed the jar of change, and put some quarters next to my wallet. After that, I could go back to watching TV without giving the matter further thought.
Use Your Calendar Appropriately
If you aren’t vigilant, your calendar can turn into a useless mess. Typically, this happens when you’re confused about the purpose of your calendar.
As Allen explains, your calendar is for “things that have to happen on a specific day or time” (42). It is not a place to keep track of things that you need to do at some unspecified point.
In other words, don’t use your calendar as a task list. Keep a list of your tasks (or “next actions”) in a separate place that you can reference as needed. Treat your calendar as “sacred territory,” a place for things that “must get done that day” (44).
Here are some quick examples to demonstrate the difference:
- Dentist appointment – This goes on your calendar since it happens on a specific day at a specific time.
- Clean out the closet – This goes on your next actions or task list since it’s something you need to do “at some point” but not at a specific time.
- Register for next semester’s classes – This goes on your calendar since there’s a specific day when you can start registering for classes.
- Send a life update to a former teacher – This goes on your next actions list since you can do it whenever you have time to write an email.
Keep a “Someday/Maybe” List
So far, we’ve talked about how to make progress on projects right now, identifying actions you can complete as time permits.
But there’s another category of things that probably pop into your mind. These are things that interest you but that aren’t currently actionable. They’re things you don’t want to forget or want to return to in the future.
To keep track of such items, Allen recommends creating a “Someday/Maybe” list (46). Think of this as a catch-all place to store everything that could be cool to do in the future.
As with your lists of projects and next actions, the Someday/Maybe list helps keep your mind clear. Every time a project idea pops into your head, you can add it to the list. That way, it won’t distract you while you’re working on more pressing or relevant work.
Here are some examples of what you might put on your Someday/Maybe list:
- Learn Italian
- Visit all 50 states
- Learn to grill
- Buy a new car
- Move to Thailand
- Start an herb garden
- Read The Brothers Karamazov
In addition to keeping a running list, Allen also suggests using your calendar to keep track of events you might want to attend in the future.
For example, let’s say you see a poster for a concert that’s not for several months. You know you want to attend if you’re available, but you don’t know what your schedule will be.
So you “pencil in” the concert on your calendar to review later. Once the concert gets closer, you can decide if you’ll be able to go.
Perform a Weekly Review
The final lesson we want to share from Getting Things Done is the power of the weekly review.
No matter how organized you are, no matter how much you plan, your work will inevitably get messy during the week. Unexpected tasks will come up, projects will take longer than you anticipated, or new opportunities will arise.
To keep your organizational system on track, Allen recommends performing a weekly review: “Everything that might require action must be reviewed on a frequent enough basis to keep your mind from taking back the job of remembering and reminding” (50).
To perform a weekly review, look at your calendar and all your task and project lists. Check off any items that are complete, update anything that has changed, and look at what’s coming next week.
If you do this every week, you’ll be able to enter your weekend with an unparalleled sense of calm.
Think about the feeling of satisfaction you get at the end of the semester when you’ve finished all your projects and exams. Now, imagine you could feel that way at the end of every week. This is the power of the weekly review.
For more on performing a weekly review, check out this post.
Covering every great idea in Getting Things Done is beyond the scope of a single blog post. But I hope this article has given you a taste of Allen’s transformative methodology.
Even if you don’t use the full GTD® system, the ideas here can still help you work more calmly and effectively.
Looking for a way to start implementing the GTD® system today? Check out our Ultimate Brain template:
Image Credits: writing ideas on a whiteboard